Scientists have urged caution regarding the new data linking the UK Covid variant to higher mortality as they suggested it is not a “game changer” in terms of dealing with the pandemic.
Boris Johnson told a Downing Street news conference on Friday that there is “some evidence” the coronavirus variant detected in Kent is more lethal than previous strains of the virus.
“I must tell you that we have been informed today that in addition to spreading more quickly, it appears that there is some evidence that the new variant that was first identified in London and the South East may be associated with a higher degree of mortality,” said the Prime Minister.
Chief scientist Sir Patrick Vallance explained that while on average the old variant might lead to the deaths of 10 in 1,000 men in their 60s who caught the virus, the new variant might kill 13 or 14 in 1,000.
Scientists on the Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) said there was a “realistic possibility” that the variant was associated with an increased risk of death.
But one of the briefing’s co-authors, Professor Graham Medley told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The question about whether it is more dangerous in terms of mortality I think is still open.”
He added: “In terms of making the situation worse it is not a game changer. It is a very bad thing that is slightly worse.”
Dr Mike Tildesley, associate professor at the University of Warwick also said it was too early to say for sure whether the new variant is more deadly.
Speaking about the Prime Minister’s comments that the variant could be up to 30 per cent more deadly, Dr Tildsley said: “It’s somewhat unclear that this 30 per cent is really what we are seeing… early signs are concerning but we need a few more weeks [worth of data].”
He told Sky News that the data “could continue to reflect what we are seeing already, that it’s more transmissible and more deadly, but it’s possible as we get more data that it could go the other way”.
Professor Peter Horby, who chairs Nervtag said that people needed to put data showing increased mortality rates from the new UK coronavirus variant “in perspective”.
“Initial data didn’t suggest that this was any more serious than the old virus but now the data has started to come in there are a number of streams of data that are coming in that suggest there might be a small increase in risk of death,” he told BBC Breakfast.
“There are some limitations in the data so we need to be cautious with the interpretations but it is important that people understand that we are looking at this and this may be true.
“If you look at it as a relative change like 30 or 40% then it sounds really bad but a big change in a very small risk takes it from a very small number to a slightly bigger, but still very small number, so for most people the risk is very, very small.
“People need to put it into perspective. This is a risk for certain age groups and that risk may have increased but for most people it is still not a serious disease.”
But Prof Horby acknowledged that the new data should be taken “very seriously”.
“This is an unpleasant virus. It’s throwing things at us that are unpleasant and we’re going to have to manage them,” he said.
Prof Horby defended the Government’s decision to announce the news about the mortality rates from the new variant, saying: “I think a very important principle is transparency.”
“Scientists are looking at the possibility that there is increased severity… and after a week of looking at the data we came to the conclusion that it was a realistic possibility,” he said.
“We need to be transparent about that. If we were not telling people about this we would be accused of covering it up.
“What we need to do is get that message out and put it in context so instead of headlines saying 30 per cent increase in risk we need to explain this in terms of the absolute risk we may be seeing and also explain the uncertainties.”
Public Health England medical director Dr Yvonne Doyle said that more work was needed to establish whether the variant was more deadly.
“There is some evidence, but it is very early evidence. It is small numbers of cases and it is far too early to say this will actually happen,” she told Today.
Prof Horby warned that complete control of other international coronavirus variants in future would be “almost impossible” but that certain measures would slow down their movement.
But he agreed that the UK would be safer “from a scientific point of view” if more measures were put in place.
“Certainly measures like stricter quarantines and putting people in hotels for long periods will have an impact and it’s up to the Government to decide whether they think the imposition of those is worth the benefits they’re likely to see,” he said.
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